Part 8: It’s all in the numbers – or not

Part of our ‘Thinking About Tomorrow Today’ series

When Governor Gavin Newsom recently shut down the beaches in Orange County, many used as “evidence” a couple of eye-level photos plus a reported estimate that 40,000 people were on the sand the weekend before.

The number 40,000 apparently drove the Governor’s decision.

And that number, like so many other numbers batted around during this crisis, have been used as the foundation in making many policy decisions.

So I do think it’s important to think through the numbers policy makers cite and put them in some type of context that is often lost at the time data are presented.

When I heard that 40,000 people were at Orange County beaches, of course I thought, that’s a lot of people! But then I thought about that number in proportion to how much ‘beach’ we have in this county.

There are 42 miles of beach in Orange County. If beaches average 300 feet of depth, that would mean there are 66,528,000 square feet of beach in Orange County.

And if each of those beach goers were in a family pair, that would mean each group of two would have 3,326 sq. ft. of beach all to themselves. Most of those beach goers probably don’t have a 3,326 sq. ft. house – so a beach plot of that size would have left a lot of sand for social distancing.

Even though I thought the Governor’s decision to close Orange County beaches was a terrible, subjective directive by the Governor, let’s put that issue aside. A more important discussion to have is how numbers cited during this crisis can reinforce arguments on both sides of the debate.

For example, each county’s COVID death count is, and should be, an important statistic to track. It is, of course, a tragedy to hear that 76 Orange Countians have died from the coronavirus, as of today. No one disputes this is very disturbing, and a tragedy that the death “count” reached this significant number.

But maybe there is a way to get a clearer picture, and see this from a different perspective. For example, what if we consider not just the actual death count, but the death rate per 100,000 county residents and compare it to other counties? If you did, Orange County would actually look very good in comparison.

Consider these rankings of key counties in deaths per 100,000 residents:

Seeing these numbers, give a totally different perspective of the difference between Orange County and other counties.

Another question a policy maker might want to figure out is where these deaths are occurring.

It has been widely reported that one of the leading locations of Covid-19 deaths is in senior care facilities and nursing homes. According to the Orange County Register, “(s)tatewide, nearly half of the deaths related to COVID-19 have been attributed to nursing homes and residential care facilities.

So, if that is true, shouldn’t we be focusing on how to best quarantine and help those patients and workers in senior care facilities, rather than focusing energy on closing our beaches? Numbers tell us a lot, but how they are presented and how we receive them, colors decisions by everyone.

Decision making, whether by government officials or by those in business, cannot just be based on numbers. Policy makers can’t just rely on a narrow set of statistics to decide who gets permission to reopen their business or re-engage in their life.

The public health decisions that government leaders are making now should also account for one’s economic survival or demise, and probably a lot of other factors that certain statistics don’t take into account. Yes, what those factors are may be colored by personal beliefs or political perspectives. But at least acknowledging that up front would be more honest. Good public policy decisions are never based solely on data; but rather on realities and perspectives that numbers alone cannot capture.

 

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